Friday, April 16, 2010

Low Light by Stanley J. Cutler

Reviewed for The New Podler Review of Books by Libby Cone

This book has a very engaging plot, dealing with a possible explanation for the legendary FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover's predilection for persecuting anyone he deemed Communist or otherwise subversive, while leaving the great organized crime networks of the US relatively untouched. It is common knowledge now that J. Edgar preferred the company of men; it was a career-destroying piece of information in the Twenties, and the only lever with which he could be controlled.

Low Light I have lived in Philadelphia for twenty years, and have been to Atlantic City once or twice, and find Cutler's descriptions of old Philly and the honky-tonk sounds and smells of Atlantic City to be quite evocative.

Cutler tells a tale of photographer Al Rubin, who has built a life in the United States after arriving as a penniless immigrant. Still mindful of the racism and anti-Semitism rife in everyday polite American society, he has been able to situate himself in the middle class. Of course, a middle class life in those days could be destroyed if you were a naturalized citizen with too much familiarity with the likes of labor unions, Socialists, and the like. The author mentions the Palmer raids, roundups and deportations of immigrants, legal and illegal, naturalized and non-naturalized, that were named after Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General. It was best to keep a low profile. In an interesting digression towards the end of the book, Al reflects on the gangsters who have tapped him for his services, namely Meyer Lansky and Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, and their ways of smoothing the cognitive dissonance inherent in the trade:
“Meyer was of the Robin Hood school; laws were enacted by an elite group to manage society for its own, narrow benefit. He, born poor, had an obligation to take from them…" Johnson, the Treasurer of Atlantic County, boss of the Republican political machine, and "Czar of the Ritz,"  "…saw himself as the benevolent engineer who kept everything running smoothly." 
Al, in too-infrequent moments of introspection, sees himself being sucked into this demimonde, attracted by the wealth and luxury. He gradually acquires his gangster sea-legs as the plot progresses, to the point of using his boyhood boxing experience without hesitation to get out of a jam. Does he have photos of Hoover in a negligee? Does Meyer? Are the photos destroyed? Hoover is kept guessing, and his weakness for the ponies as well as for tall guys is played like a violin.

I would have liked to see a bit more depth in Al's infrequent soliloquies on being drawn into the life. These are the only portions where Cutler ditches show-don't-tell ("The room pulled at me—I wanted to gamble"..."I didn't want to understand her; I had been completely seduced").

A bit more mention of some characters, such as investigators Dixon and Whitehead, would have been nice, so I didn't have to keep going back to the prologue (or whatever one is to call the pages before Part One), in which Al is spying on, and trying to photograph, Hoover and his lover Clement Talbot in flagrante delicto. The prologue would be perfectly fine in chronological order.

Cutler is spot-on in his research (indeed, I had forgotten that Woodrow Wilson, who is briefly mentioned, died in 1924; I thought he had died in 1920, but my plans to make snarky comments about this being an historical vampire novel were happily foiled). Other minor flaws were mentions of Al and his wife taking mass transit on Shabbos to Meyer Lansky's Bar Mitzvah, which had me busily dog-earing pages, only to be followed several chapters later by the mention that they were Reform Jews, and rather lapsed at that. A little more explanation earlier on would remedy that. I was very amused at one point where, when offered a lobster, Al turns it down in favor of a club sandwich (which contains bacon). It is a brilliant evocation of one of the little cognitive-dissonance smoothings many of us no-longer-really-kosher Jews do. Oh, no, not a big lobster! A little bacon buried in a sandwich? OK. But in Al's case, we have already seen him rationalize blackmail.

Now for the editing. As Al's wife Ida and I both tend to say when perturbed, vay is mir! I will be the first to point out the difficulties of self-publishing: it is extraordinarily difficult to keep some of the conventions in mind, such as not indenting a line of dialogue that starts a paragraph (I am guilty of this and am beating my chest right now). But, oy, the backwards quotation marks! On almost every page yet! Sometimes he uses single quotes, it seems, just for the hell of it. Plus "alright" used so many times, a middle school English teacher would plotz! The restaurant at Nucky's Ritz is called "The Bath and Turf Club." Bath and Turf? Is that a steak on a plate with a loofah? And why do the waitstaff keep changing genders?

The other things that bothered me were the portentous subtitles on the front and back covers. "Birth of Organized Crime in Jazz Age Atlantic City" and "Blackmail FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover," besides being non-grammatical, make the book sound like nonfiction. I only figured out it was a novel when I began reading the contents. A little subtlety instead of subtitles would be nice.

That said, it was an enjoyable read. I hope Mr. Cutler's style and editing really shine in the second and third volumes of what is to be a trilogy.

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